Mental Health & Dance Music: How 'Not Enough Has Changed' Since Avicii's Death

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Illustration by Sébastien Thibault
      

In early March, almost a year after Tim Bergling -- better known as Avicii -- took his life in a hotel room in Oman, The Prodigy’s Keith Flint was found hanged in his home in England. The men were 28 and 49, respectively, and symbolized two different eras of dance music: Flint’s maniacal stage persona exemplified ’90s rave culture, while Bergling’s crossover anthems “Levels” and “Wake Me Up!” paved EDM’s path to the mainstream.

Flint had struggled with both depression and drug addiction earlier in his career. Bergling was, it seems, overwhelmed by the demands of the industry, performing 813 shows in eight years before retiring in 2016, citing exhaustion, severe anxiety and pancreatitis due to alcohol abuse. (His decline was chronicled in the 2017 documentary Avicii: True Stories.) But the experiences of both men reveal pervasive and long-standing problems within the dance industry that continue to affect the mental health of artists.

“Avicii’s death catapulted mental health into the spotlight,” says Tristan Hunt of the Association for Electronic Music (AFEM). “Overnight, the topic took center stage at conferences worldwide.” The International Music Summit, founded by BBC Radio 1’s Pete Tong and industry veteran Ben Turner, has made the topic a priority. At the 2018 IMS Ibiza, which took place just a month after Bergling’s death, Tong gave a somber keynote speech calling for the industry to “wake up” and “see who might need help.”

“We raised awareness around the whole subject,” says Tong today. “I now know more artists and those behind-the-scenes who are striving for a healthier balance.” And Turner, who introduced the wellness retreat Remedy State to IMS last year, says 2018 was monumental for commencing a dialogue. “We had people [at IMS] telling us that they had been suffering in silence for 10, 15, 20 years,” he says. “That spirit of openness is the big change we’ve seen.” Still, Tong is hesitant to tout significant progress. “We are just scratching the surface. I’m sad to say not enough has changed.”

The systemic problems that contributed to both Avicii’s and Flint’s declines still exist at every level of the industry. “Evidence shows that unsocial hours, irregular employment” -- chronic issues for DJs who travel constantly and perform largely during festival season -- ”and working away from home can all take their toll,” says Joe Hastings, head of health and welfare at the charity Help Musicians UK. “This can be especially true in dance music.” And as Turner notes, DJs “are essentially doing the night shift, which is linked to an increased risk of cancer, heart problems and depression.”

As Avicii: True Stories strongly intimates, agents and managers play a crucial role in the health of their artists. On several occasions, a visibly ill Bergling faces pushback from his team when he asks to cancel shows. While much of the dance industry’s revenue is generated from live performances, some DJs’ teams are starting to take on the responsibility of keeping their artists on more realistic schedules.

“DJs can travel across multiple continents in one weekend. If they express concern with the routing, we immediately look into different options or cut shows completely,” says Natalie Turner of booking agency Liaison Artists. “No amount of money can take precedence over a sustainable lifestyle on tour.” And especially when lucrative fees are at stake, as AFEM member and stress management therapist Aida Vazin emphasizes, it’s “important that participants in this industry learn how to say ‘no,’ as well as what their limitations are.”

Though social media has helped advance the mental health conversation, it’s also often part of the problem -- especially for female DJs who are frequently singled out by trolls. “It can be the biggest self-esteem-buster around,” says Kathryn Frazier, the owner of PR agency Biz3 who also works with artists as a certified personal and professional coach. “I have seen huge artists who read the comments and spin out on a handful of negative seeds planted by five or 10 people.”

Artists like Alison Wonderland -- whose “self-care Sundays” Twitter ritual is a favorite with fans -- have tried to find strength in vulnerability, opening up about their mental health struggles. And in late 2018, Bill Brewster -- the veteran DJ and author of 1999 scene bible Last Night a DJ Saved My Life -- revealed his battle with depression on Instagram. “In an industry built on glamour, fun, good times and stimulants,” he wrote, “it can be seen as spoiling the magic by opening the curtains to the industry’s darkness.” The reaction to the post, says Brewster, was incredible. “Suddenly it felt like I had a support network.”

Will this more open dialogue spur action to better manage dance music’s systemic problems? The 2019 IMS Ibiza will likely be a barometer for progress. Mental health is again the core topic, and with over a dozen health and wellness organizations invited, Turner hopes community leaders can establish a path forward. “If 2018 saw an acceptance that it’s OK to talk,” he says, “then 2019 is about manifesting that into action.”

This article originally appeared in the March 30 issue of Billboard.


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